Mab shattered into pieces exactly three hundred and forty-four days after Lucy and Francis died. She worked out the figure in the sickroom, as she lay in bed staring at the ceiling.
She’d been called to demonstrate the one remaining bombe machine in Hut 11A. All the others had been moved to outstations, along with the Wrens who serviced them, but demonstrations were still required from time to time, and a cluster of Americans was getting the show now. “This is how we set the bombe in motion,” Mab said tonelessly over the machine’s racket.
“Awfully finicky work.” A lieutenant hovered, jostling. He had fair hair and an easy smile and was probably just trying to be friendly, but Mab could hardly stand looking at him. She didn’t want to be friendly. The only reason she’d returned to Bletchley Park was because it was work here or do service elsewhere; because working here meant she could help stop the German bastards who had killed her family—and finally, because Francis would have been disappointed if she’d curled up in bed after the funerals and let the grief eat her alive. He’d have told her to carry on the fight.
So Mab had come back to BP a shocking two days after Francis’s funeral—she knew people had whispered—and she hadn’t missed a shift since. She threw herself into her work, and why not? Francis and Lucy were dead, and that wasn’t a false stop. She couldn’t wire her life up like a bombe and get it running again. Everything had just—stopped.
“Marvelous machines I’ve seen here,” the Yank wittered on, oblivious. “And so many attractive ladies. As far as I can tell, the machines were made by the British Tabulating Machine Company and the ladies by God!”
He honked laughter. Mab looked at him. She didn’t lower her eyebrows in her old scowl, she just gazed at him blankly until his smile dripped away. Mab didn’t know what was in her gaze these days, but very few people seemed to want to meet it for long.
She finished with the drums, changed up the wheel orders, checked the wires on the new wheels. Her lips were cracked and dry from the hut’s airlessness; Mab reached for her pocket mirror and set it above the bombe’s cables, pulling out her lipstick. She had a scraping of Elizabeth Arden Victory Red left in the tube—a sudden memory flashed of the time Lucy had rummaged in her cosmetics and used half a tube daubing her face in war paint. I shouted at her. Why did I do that? Mab’s hand shook as she lifted the lipstick, steadying the mirror with her other hand, and an electric shock from the cables jolted thorough the metal mirror to her fingertips. She turned numbly, and the American let out a surprised shout, pointing at her throat. Mab raised her stinging fingers and touched something sticky, saw red on her fingertips.
I’m dead, she thought calmly, looking in the mirror and seeing the red line across her windpipe. But it wasn’t blood she smelled on her fingertips, just lipstick. The recoil of her electric-shocked hand had jerked the lipstick across her own neck; it must have looked like she’d cut her own throat.
I’m not dead, she tried to say, looking at the ash-pale Yanks. Instead, she found herself laughing at a high pitch, laughing and shaking beside the bombe machine, which kept on with its horrible, monotonous whirring. Mab tried to steady herself, but somehow slipped to her knees instead on the oily floor, still laughing, smearing and tearing at the red line on her throat.
Then there were hands pulling her away from the bombe. “Get her to the infirmary.” When Mab pulled herself together, she was standing wan and swaying before a starchy-looking matron in a ward she’d never set foot in before.
“What’s the matter with you, then?”
“I don’t know,” Mab said, dazed. “What month is it?”
The woman looked at her a moment. “October, love. ’Forty-Three.”
Ten months since she’d buried Francis and Lucy. Ten months. Soon it would be a year. Where had the days gone? Mab couldn’t remember getting out of bed this morning, or taking the transport bus here. She didn’t know if she was on day shift, evening shift, or night shift. She clutched for the blanketing cotton wool that had battened her senses for months, but it thinned and shredded, electrified away. Mab began to cry in huge wrenching sobs.
She hadn’t cried since Coventry.
“That’s all right, love.” The matron steered her to a narrow white bed behind a screen. “You’ve got a touch of nervous exhaustion, I’ll wager. Four days’ bed rest—”
“My husband is dead,” Mab managed to say. She wanted to add my daughter is dead, but she couldn’t have anyone thinking that Lucy had been a bastard, and she couldn’t say my sister after a lifetime of saying nothing else. So just—“My husband is dead.”
“I haven’t got a cure for that, love. I wish I did.” Giving Mab’s shoulder a squeeze. “But plenty of sleep and water will still do you some good. Strip down and climb in—”
“Job’s up,” Mab whispered. “Job’s up, strip down . . .” She peeled out of her black crepe, crawled between the sheets, and slept like the dead for nearly three days.
When she woke, she saw two male blurs at her bedside, one huge and dark, one skinny and ginger. The sight of any man who wasn’t Francis sometimes hurt her, but Harry and Giles were so absolutely, comfortingly different in every way that she could look at them without flinching.
“Sleeping Beauty awakes,” Giles said. “The Mad Hatters have been dropping in between shifts to see if we can catch you when you aren’t snoring.”
—You snore—Francis’s voice. But a very ladylike snore . . .
“We brought the Mad Hatter’s topper,” Giles was burbling, oblivious. “Thought it might be just the thing.” He plunked the outrageous object into her hands, and Mab stroked the spray of silk flowers, trying to remember when she’d last gone to a Tea Party. She couldn’t even remember when she’d last read a book. I’ve gone a little mad, she thought unsteadily, mad as the Mad Hatter. She didn’t think it was over yet, either. There were broken pieces jabbing everywhere inside, now that the cotton wool was gone.
“You just missed Beth,” Harry was saying, linking his big hands between his knees. “She had to go on shift. And she’s not really sure what to do around sickbeds. You aren’t a line of code, so she’s stumped.”
You and Beth? Mab wondered, looking at him. There was a thing a man’s eyes did when he was in love, a softening at the very centers—she’d learned that from Francis. Abruptly, she wished Harry would go. She didn’t want to look at a man in love when she’d lost her own. Mab remembered reading something rubbishy about the ennoblement of grief . . . what rot. Grief didn’t make you noble. It made you selfish and hateful. She made herself smile at Harry, but she was glad when he left.
Giles lingered, looking like a bony heron perched on his too-low stool. “You want to scream,” he said, “don’t you?”
“Yes.” Her hand left the Mad Hatter’s topper and crept up to her throat where the line of lipstick had looked like a knife slash. I wish it had been.
“What you need,” Giles said, “is a transfer.”
“Where?” When the bombes were moved out and the Wrens with them, Mab had been stuck back in Hut 6, first on a Typex, more recently in the Machine Room, where she mechanically sorted and tested bombe menus. “I’m not a brain like Beth or Harry. I don’t speak German; no use pushing me in with women like—”
Osla. The name stuck in her throat like a spike of ice. Perhaps she didn’t loathe Osla with the visceral hatred that had gripped her after the funeral, but a tiny whisper inside remained uncompromising: If you hadn’t let go of Lucy’s hand . . .
It wasn’t fair. Mab knew it wasn’t fair. She knew if she picked her anger apart, the feelings beneath would be far more complicated than simple hatred. But she didn’t have the energy, and every day the gulf grew wider, so Mab simply kept to the road of avoiding her old friend. Hating Osla was less complicated, more comforting—and avoiding her was child’s play. Keeping your distance from someone at BP was easy if you didn’t work the same hut or shift schedule. Mab had moved from their shared room to a parlor cot, so even billeting under the same roof, she hardly ever crossed paths with Osla.
“There are all kinds of posts here,” Giles continued. “You’re not tied to Hut 6—let’s see if we can get you swapped into the mansion. Travis’s team, maybe . . . I’ll pull strings.”
“Thank you,” Mab managed.
He seemed to realize what an effort it took her. “Things have been damned awful for you this year. I’m sorry.”
Sorry. Everyone told her they were sorry. Why didn’t they tell her how to go on living, instead? How to keep going, day after day, when soon it was going to be a year since she’d buried Lucy and Francis—then two years—then three?
Why did no one tell her how to keep living?
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FROM BLETCHLEY BLETHERINGS, NOVEMBER 1943
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